A surprise power outage and an inconvenient amount of snow wouldn’t cancel the 10 a.m. virtual meeting, only delay it a bit. Misty Orpin pledged to make it work, sending her assurances from inside the car where her 15- and 3-year-old sons were already buckled in. An hour later, ensconced in a friend’s heated trailer and with a solid Wi-Fi connection, Orpin was ready. Having successfully run the winter gauntlet, she had 45 minutes to talk while her children made use of a perfect sledding hill nearby. Problem solved.
Not one to be put off by record-breaking winter storms or snow jobs of any other variety, Orpin habitually flings herself into projects of intimidating scale. She’s locally famous for it. In March of 2020 she launched Arkansascovid.com, a website and Twitter account that sliced through jargon and spin to help Arkansans understand the real implications of the novel virus to which no one was immune. So far in 2021 she’s focused on the Arkansas legislature, crafting podcasts and social media posts to make it easier for people to find out what’s happening at the state Capitol and how it will affect them.
Now, Orpin is teaming up with former Republican, newly Independent state Sen. Jim Hendren of Gravette on Common Ground Arkansas, a nascent pan-partisan effort to foster collaboration across party lines.
If you were a contestant on a game show, how would you introduce yourself? I hate talking about myself! I like talking about my work, but I hate talking about myself. I’m a mom who’s really nosy. I kind of get to do what I want. I feel very fortunate and spoiled.
Professionally, how did you get to this point where you can pick and choose your own journalistic pursuits? I’ve worked on a lot of things. I did Northwest Arkansas trail development in the early days, before we were the mountain biking capital of the South. That was really fun and really exciting and I just can’t say enough good things about that experience. Basically I got to ride my bike and talk to cool people all the time. Who doesn’t want to do that?
I worked on downtown Springdale revitalization for a couple of years, then took a break to have my toddler. I went to work at U of A [Fayetteville] in economic development for a little while. I wanted to work with [former vice chancellor of economic development] Stacy Leeds, she’s an amazing person.
Then I decided to just focus on Black Apple Cidery [the hard cider company her family co-owns]. It was a big transition for us, launching into additional markets, so I wanted to help do some marketing work for the company until we could grow enough to afford to bring someone in full time. That’s where we are now.
Since [then], I just have been able to follow my curiosity and spend a lot of time getting nerdy about things I really find interesting. That’s what led me to the COVID thing, being able to spend a lot of time deep-diving into questions I had about COVID data.
The Arkansascovid.com project you launched last year was a big deal. Tell me about it. I kind of felt like a phony early on because I didn’t want people to follow me for health advice. I’m not a doctor, so that was really important to me to make clear. I was just taking numbers that the Health Department had and repackaging them in a way that people could easily access the data, breaking it down and using their numbers in ways that were easier for people to see and track the changes.
That did lead me to some advocacy work as I saw holes in the data or things that weren’t being reported correctly, or that were maybe being reported in a disingenuous manner. That led me to do some advocacy work on transparency and mask wearing. I’m a big pro-masker.
People who followed the @Arkansascovid Twitter account saw tensions rise a few times when you pushed back on how the state was reporting data. What was that about? I think everybody knows I hated the way we calculated and communicated our percent positives, the way they used testing data and the positive rate so it always made it look like we were going down. That was disingenuous, we were never going down, we were always going up. I don’t feel like there was enough interest or curiosity as to why the data looked that way. I wanted people on the governor’s staff to ask why it looked like that every day even though it wasn’t going in that direction.
You ended up handing the reins of Arkansascovid over to students at the University of Arkansas. Why? I didn’t feel like I could do any more good, personally. I got to the end of my ability to make stuff better for people, I got to where I was just providing the data but felt like nothing was going to change. For me, that’s not very interesting. I got it to where the data was accessible. I knew what the state was going to say or not going to say, what the state was going to do or not going to do, so it made sense for U of A to take it over. I’m so grateful that students took it on.
Have you always lived in Springdale? I grew up in a little town called Hector, northeast of Russellville. It’s a teeny weenie little town that I love. Lots of members of my family are still there. It will always feel like home to me no matter where I go. Springdale is in many ways a great place to live. The diversity is amazing. Where else can you find an Asian shop next to a supermercado next to a Marshallese place? It’s really cool.
Do you always have a project of some sort going? Yes, constantly. I think it comes from growing up on a farm. Farmers never stop working. When I was a kid, all the adults I looked up to worked their tails off all the time. There was never a stop, you always had to go feed the cows or check the chickens. You just didn’t have down time. My mom doesn’t farm anymore but she still has that mentality. She has 55 acres and she’s always chopping wood and now clearing snow. I’m not much of a manual labor person but I always have to be doing mental work.
Is your pattern that you take on a project, build it up, then hand it off so you can start working on something new? In my personal life I’m not a long-term planner. That question, where do you see yourself in five years? I have no frickin’ idea. I see myself doing something that is fulfilling. Doing something that matters. That’s where I’m going to be in five years. I like to build things and once I feel like I’ve built something, that it’s spun up and sustainable, I like to hand it off.
I do recognize not everybody gets to be passionate about the work they do. Sometimes you have to be passionate about putting food on the table for the kids. I recognize I am in a ridiculously privileged place to do this work. I try to be grateful for that every day.
Does a common thread run through the projects you take on? With the exception of my U of A work it’s all very grassroots. I’m not interested in doing anything that’s not authentic, that’s not aimed at real Arkansans. I believe in real people. I don’t come from fancy people. I’m a fifth-generation Arkansan who cares so very fucking deeply about this place where I live. My roots are so deep here. By God, with all of its faults, I’m proud of my state. I want to have more to be proud of.
Tell us about what you’re doing with the legislative session. I really wanted to go crazy and look at every bill and follow every committee and get to know the personalities. We hear about the bills that pass and the bills that fail, but I’m interested in the process behind why things pass or fail. Like, what are the personality conflicts involved? Who’s pushing what? The process, to me, is even more interesting sometimes than the outcome.
I started too wonky on it, too boring, and I kind of backed off a bit. Now I’ve gotten sidelined with this second project, and I’m not sure how closely I’ll follow the legislative stuff. But I’ve really noticed a lot of good information coming out of this session that maybe we didn’t have in previous sessions as far as innovative reporting styles.
What gave you the idea to do legislative podcasts? I listen to a lot of podcasts. I always listen to Rachel Maddow, that’s one way I stay up with the news. I don’t always have time to be at my computer reading, but when I’m walking around the house doing dishes, taking care of kids, whatever, I can slip on headphones and listen. I really wanted something like that for Arkansas. It was just a niche that I felt was missing so I started that. It turned out to be just a lot more work than I thought it was going to be to do it well, which is why I stepped away from doing a daily podcast. It’s just not sustainable with everything else.
What are the most interesting things you’ve seen at the Capitol so far this year? Dysfunction in the Senate has been a theme I’m really interested in, the gridlock and just the inability to get good legislation passed. They’re so focused on grandstanding on national issues they don’t actually have any control over, rather than governing. I think we have a lot of people there in the legislature right now who have no idea how to govern. What they do know how to do is talk and just throw out scary rhetoric to try to scare people into voting for them in the next cycle.
There are people out there who would like to govern, who would like to do things for Arkansans, but they’re very rarely able to do that because of this tendency to fearmonger rather than lead. It’s frustrating, especially with the pandemic going on, to see the first piece of legislation that they ran this year in the Senate was the stand your ground bill, rather than anything to do with the pandemic or supporting small businesses.
As a small business owner, that sucks. We are surviving, but very few businesses are doing really, really well. A lot of businesses are operating at half their revenue to a quarter of their revenue. We could use some help and some innovative leadership. We are not seeing any leadership, much less innovative leadership, from the majority of our representatives.
That scary rhetoric you talk about to get people to vote a certain way seems to be really effective. Do you have ideas about how to beat it? I think a lot of it has to do with the funders. We have a broken primary system and we have a broken two-party system in Arkansas. Look at it. Republicans are so afraid of getting primaried from the right that they’re not going to vote against extreme legislation. They’re getting a lot of funding from outside groups that are stoking those fears. A lot of our Arkansas funders haven’t done as well at standing up and saying, “We will not give the job to people pushing this extremist rhetoric that’s not doing anything for the state of Arkansas or for Arkansas businesses.”
There has to be a shift in how we fund the primary cycles and how we fund candidates. I don’t think that’s from a legislation perspective. It’s from a people perspective. If we want to change the ends we have to change our tactics. I think it’s going to take a pretty big shift.
What are you reading? I just actually got a new e-reader. I had refused to embrace them but my husband just got me one. I like that you can bookmark things, that’s what I’m most excited about. I just read Stacey Abrams’ book “Our Time Is Now.” I’m currently reading Sonia Sotomayor’s biography. I read nonfiction but I intersperse it with really trashy romance novels.
What about TV? I watch a ton of TV. I’m not a snob in thinking you have to read really stilted books to be a cool person. I watch a lot of Netflix and HBO.
What have you been doing at your house to avoid cabin fever? My teenager is writing a web series. He’s written 200 pages on this series with his friends online. It’s interesting to watch how teenagers are communicating during the pandemic. They’re being so incredibly creative and cool. It’s been fun to watch them.
Once the pandemic is over, what will you do first? I have twice almost purchased tickets to go see Charlie Crockett only to have my better angels prevail. I don’t care where he’s playing. I’m going to see him and also to see Sarah Shook and the Disarmers. I miss live music.